Saturday, 13 November 2021

Black History Now! My Opening Remarks In On-line Panel Discussion 28 October

 I was on the Black History Now! Durham University Online Panel discussion on 28 October discussing:  

·         The state of the field in Black British History

·         What is going on in Black History in Durham and the North East?

·         Can historians in Durham and the wider region continue to build the field?

·         And what are the implications of recent developments in the field for the movement to decolonise the curriculum?

These were my opening remarks.

The state of the field in Black British History

State of British Black History

Back in January 2019 there was a new initiative started in London for a series of Black History Seminars. Over 100 people attended. The mood was upbeat. I did a follow-up blog posting suggesting that British Black History was in a good state. This has been boosted by the Black Lives Matter movement’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd in the United States,

The drowning of Colston

and by the symbolic drowning of the Colston statue in Bristol. The amount of coverage of aspects of British Black History on TV and in the press has noticeably increased. Numerous essays and books have been published. Several Universities have appointed black staff like Liam here to look at their histories with slavery, abolition and the black contribution, and to decolonise the curriculum.

There is now much more information and resources accessible on British Black History. It is becoming integrated into the narrative of British history. There is of course opposition, the most sinister being the Government’s declaration of cultural war. Even if it can find ways to stop Universities and schools teaching the real history in the curriculum, it will not be able to stop the continuing work of researchers, genealogists, local history and community groups, walk leaders, the givers of talks, the specialist history magazines and journals, TV programme makers and film directors, organisations putting up plaques, musicians, composers, playwrights and fiction writers, from adding to our knowledge and understanding. It will not be able to stop museums and archives including relevant material in broader exhibitions on aspects of British history.

John Archer and Govindia

Nor can it stop initiatives by local authorities, like the John Archer statue and education project proposed by Wandsworth’s Conservative Leader Ravi Govindia.

We are becoming overloaded with new information including in books in which there is relevant material,  but which are not obviously so from their titles, like those of Sarah Hackett and Tom Vickers which include research in Newcastle.

What is going on in Black History in Durham and the North East?

I first started researching the Region’s Black history twenty years ago for a community organisation in Houghton-le-Spring to find information to help counteract the development of anti-refugee racism. The only serious work that had been done was by the late Nigel Todd in his Black-on-Tyne essay in 1987 issue of the North East Labour History Society’s journal.

Hidden Chains

Then in 2007 I was contracted to work with volunteers on the Tyne & Wear Remembering Slavery project to research and analyse the degree to which the North East was involved in the slavery business. It turned out the more extensive than expected. We also discovered that the contribution of the region’s abolition movement had been undervalued, and found more information on the black presence. John Charlton’s publication Hidden Chains brought much of this material into public view, supported by him giving talks to thousands of people. Further research was undertaken as part of the Labour History Society’s North East Popular Politics project 2010-13 which I also worked on.


All the material found by volunteers in both projects is publicly available on the North East Popular Politics database which I edit.

North East History 2021

Two students have won the Society’s Sid Chaplin prize for their essays, the most recent  on Black lives on Tyneside 1939-1952 published in the 2021 issue of the Society’s journal.

There have been local exhibitions. 2017 saw the integration of black history in the Newcastle Freedom City Festival. Brian Ward has worked on the Newcastle University award of an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King in 1967.

2021 Calendar

Last year I was a member of a team led by Beverley Prevatt Goldstein who is on this Zoom which produced the African Lives in Northern England 2021 calendar, followed this year by  school resources and a pamphlet.

Can historians in Durham and the wider region continue to build the field?

There is still an enormous amount of research to be carried out in the archives and University libraries. The 2007 and 2010-13 projects could not look at everything that had been identified as possible sources. This has been particularly the case with the material in the University’s Special Collections, and the checking of all the parish records.

And what are the implications of recent developments in the field for the movement to decolonise the curriculum?


Following my walks, archive sessions and talks in 2019 and 2020 I sent three papers to several members of staff.  One outlined a project on the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor given the importance of Durham students and staff have had since the 1930s in promoting and finding out more about him, and the fact that his later relative from Sierra Leone George studied at this University. The second is a project to research the records of Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone which was supervised by the University, and from where many African students came to Britain. The third was titled Diversity, Slavery & Abolition and the Black Presence. Thoughts on what next at Durham University.

Professor Johnston

I would now add an enquiry into the University’s Professor Johnston who is listed as attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. He had been appointed reader in Chemistry and Mineralogy when the University opened in 1833. His 1851 book Notes on North America discusses slavery and abolition and explains his active support for the abolition movement.

On 7 October the University  Library posted on its website a joint article by Professor Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller on colonial petitioning. Richard has previously published on anti-slavery abolition. This reminds us that there are academics in the same University in different departments who have overlapping interests, and why it is so important that Universities encourage the establishment of cross disciplinary networking.

Racism in Universities

The way the University thinks about decolonisation needs to be part of tackling a much broader set of problems it faces  relating to class and gender, misogyny and sexism. Because most Durham students appear to come from other parts of the country, as part of their induction should learn about the broad sweep of the history of Durham as a University, a city, and a County, so that they appreciate the communities that are they are temporarily living with. Embedded within that will be the histories of the slavery business, abolition, the black contribution and anti-racism.

Miners Song

We need to change the way individuals think based on a better understanding of the real history of Britain not the false one that has marginalised black and other ethnic minorities communities, women, the working class, and the dark realities of colonialism and imperialism.


Later the same day I gave an on-line talk for the Durham students History Society, the text of which is being put on the North East Labour History Society’s Popular Politics database.

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